Restrict and Evict the Idea of Conflict
By Ewa Schwarz
What is Conflict?
So many people have a fear of conflict. They will do just about anything to "keep the peace." Yet you cannot avoid these types of encounters, it is just not possible. But rather than be afraid of conflict as you know it or if you just simply don't like it, there are other ways to deal with it.
Conflict is not what you think it is. Like anything else, that which we don't understand we fear, and what we fear we negatively judge. So lets look at what the current definition of conflict is:
- Fight, battle, war
- Mental struggles resulting from incompatible or opposing needs, drives, wishes or internal demands; competitive or opposing action of incompatibles; antagonistic state or action
- The opposition of persons or forces that gives rise to the dramatic action in a drama or fiction
- To come into collision or disagreement, be contradictory, at variance, or in opposition; clash
- Discord of action, feeling, or effect; antagonism or opposition, as of interests or principles
Wherever there is conflict, there is always misunderstanding and assumptions. People will always have a difference of opinion about many things. We are actually trained from childhood that conflict is a normal part of life and of most societies. But have you ever really thought to question the status quo about conflict? Have you ever considered the possibility that conflict is not required and does not have to be part of your life? That conflict, like most of our other emotional reactions can become a choice?
Before any naysayers start throwing "evidence" to the contrary my way, hear me out and be open to alternatives. You do not learn anything if you instantly decide in advance that somebody is wrong before you hear anything else. Think about it. Isn't that the kind of attitude that typically leads to conflict...?
Misunderstanding and Conflict
When conflict occurs, what is really happening is that both parties feel misunderstood and they progressively escalate their attempts to prove their point or show that their position is right. This happens on both sides. It takes two people to enter into conflict. If one person believes there is a conflict and the other person does not share that same belief, then there is no conflict.
Let me explain this further. Conflict arises when a person first misunderstands the intentions of another person and then makes assumptions not only about the intention, but also about the meaning of the words they hear. Or it happens for the other person first. It doesn't matter where the misunderstanding originates. The fact is that it exists on both sides.
What also happens as soon as misunderstanding and assumptions are made is that the fight or flight response is also triggered. It seems that in most of my writings I end up talking about this response. Yet it is so important that we become more aware of just how incredibly often this is triggered in our day-to-day life so that we can do something to change it.
The whole point of this article is to raise your awareness of yourself and others so that you can stop emotionally reacting and make different choices instead. As long as you remain unaware of your triggers, you remain powerless to change them. It is only through becoming more aware of yourself that you regain the power of choice. Now lets get back to understanding conflict.
Looking at Conflict More Deeply
When we first think we perceive conflict, what is happening is that we have made an assumption that something that the other person has said is personal to us. That is our mistake. Even if you feel that you can concretely prove that the other person has verbally assaulted you, you are really only telling me that you see the tip of the iceberg. You are not looking at the massive part that you cannot see under the water.
Whatever comes out of a person's mouth has nothing to do with you and everything to do with the way their brain has processed information. The subconscious mind is that vast subterranean part of the iceberg that you cannot see. Only the tip of it is what you are experiencing. I am encouraging you to look down into the water to see that it exists. You don't have to change anything other than the direction in which you direct your eyes and your focus.
A person who goes into conflict has made a mistake. They have interpreted something in their external environment as being unsafe or potentially threatening. In this process, their fight or flight response is triggered. They feel the need to defend themselves against a perceived threat, whether it is there or not. If you believe in the idea of conflict, you will also react in the same way to their reaction.
One of the most interesting aspects of conflict is that because the fears in your mind are perennially looking for potentially unsafe situations to protect you from, your mind looks from within a very narrowed perspective. This sentinel of your mind instantaneously alerts you to potential threats. In that microsecond, your mind jumps into tunnel vision, tunnel hearing, and tunnel understanding. The probability of misinterpreting an event skyrockets.
Identifying the Potential for Conflict
The alternative to conflict has a few steps, the first of which is to recognize that the other person feels somehow unsafe and/or threatened. Instead of responding to their mistaken beliefs and assumptions, you instead search for and deal with the real reason for reacting, which has nothing to do with you, but everything to do with the misunderstanding that they are unaware of.
You can tell when a person shifts into even a mild form of fight or flight, which can be subtle or overt, but when you train yourself, becomes more obvious. We generally have not developed our power of observation in this way, so we tend to miss the clues and/or misunderstand them.
First of all you will feel slightly confused or put off by their response. You need to become aware of this because this is the juncture where you can easily fall into fight or flight yourself. You sense that something is off for the other person and your subconscious mind instantly interprets that as being potentially unsafe, triggering a defensive mechanism.
It is just at or before this point that you can learn to choose a different response. Choose instead to use your power of observation to look even more closely at what is happening with this person. Look at their body language. Have they stiffened up, muscles tensed, facial expressions suddenly changed? What has happened to their tone of voice? Does it occur to you that you or something else has just been misunderstood?
These are all the things that you can train yourself to look for. Even if you have already been triggered into feeling defensive, you can still take different action in this way. By distracting your mind and giving it a different focus, you are also working at minimizing your own fight or flight response. Insist to your own mind that the other person has made a mistake, contrary to what it is telling you.
Disarming Conflict With Different Choices
Now that you have interrupted your own subconscious response you need to know what to do next to avoid stepping into conflict. You have to come to the conclusion in your own mind that you are safe, that there is nothing to defend yourself against. This is of primary importance that there is nothing happening to you, but there is something going on for that other person.
This other person has experienced a trigger of a deep subconscious response within themselves and the way out potential conflict is to help them become more conscious of what just happened for them before they escalate. This is how you can disarm and avoid conflict.
When you see a person being triggered and heading into conflict, first calm your own mind and look for and remove your assumptions, and possible misunderstandings. If you feel a deep need to be right or defensive, you have already been triggered into fight or flight and you need to backtrack. The best solution is to find out the real issue for the other person.
How do you do this? By asking questions. First repeat back to the other person what you just thought you heard them say and then ask, "when you said this, did you think that ..." to clarify the meaning. Ask them how they reached their conclusion. Where did that belief come from?
Never tell them that they are wrong or what they need to think or you will escalate the feeling of conflict further. They will react with an attack in their attempt to defend themselves against what they see as you attacking them by telling them that they are wrong in some way. Instead, help them look for the assumption that they have made that is causing them to get defensive. Something has made them feel unsafe. Become a detective in finding out what that could be.
Each situation is unique. There is no magic solution where one suggestion will work for all situations. You will have to be creative and adapt the suggestions and try different combinations and variations to see what will work. Personal growth is an evolution that is cyclical and multilayered, requiring a multidimensional approach. When something doesn't work, you use that experience to learn from it to see what you want to do differently the next time.
If either person has been drinking alcohol, it becomes extremely difficult if not impossible to implement these strategies. Alcohol chemically produces the same stress response as in fight or flight by stimulating the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Your body goes into this response without specific triggers for you to intellectually and logically work through.
Learning From Conflict; Not Reinforcing it!
An important part of this process is to not be judgmental of the other person. If you are frustrated, angry, annoyed, etc., it will be communicated to the other person, causing them to feel even more unsafe and to feel even a stronger need to defend themselves. If you feel any of these feelings you have made mistaken assumptions yourself and you are reacting in turn.
Of course the ideal situation is where you can make the choice at that very important juncture before you go into fight or flight. But what do you do if you are triggered as well, get defensive, go into fight or flight and end up in that conflict that you are wanting to and trying to avoid?
This is where hindsight can actually be of value to you. Observe your own behaviors and responses without judging yourself. It is only fear that insists that you or the other person are right or wrong or good or bad. Going into that place of judgment is completely pointless and very harmful. It prevents you from looking at the situation clearly so that you can make different choices in the future.
Remind yourself that what happened was the best that both of you could do in that moment. When fear kicks in, the subconscious mind will look for what it knows from the past to try to keep a person safe. We already know that the mind needs some new tricks and some new tools! Getting mad, frustrated, or angry at yourself (or the other person) just contributes to that feeling of lack of safety within you. Stop that part of the cycle.
To teach your brain new responses it must be done from a space of relative safety. Review what happened in this most recent conflict and look for and identify the assumptions that both of you just made. Look for and identify the additional meaning that was placed on the situation. Train yourself to clearly see how both your responses escalated. Watch what your mind did to try to protect you and see how the other person's mind tried to protect them. Notice how this type of "protection" does not work.
By familiarizing yourself with this patterned process, it gives you knowledge, awareness, and a little more power. Then the next time you see the potential for conflict arising, when you see a person has misunderstood something and has gone into fight or flight, you know that you have different options available to you. Sometimes you will be able to take them and sometimes not.
The Results of All Your Hard Work!
There will be the first time that you try this approach and succeed. It will feel wonderful. Then there will be a number of times that you don't. Fight the tendency to feel bad about it and study the behaviors more. You will succeed again. And then again. The more you practice this the better you will get at it. You will slowly start to feel safer. The safer you feel the better you get at this.
With time, persistence, and practice you start to realize that there is less conflict in your life. You are learning how to handle people's reactions so that you can defuse conflict before it switches from that moment of misunderstanding into fight or flight. You help the other person defuse and deactivate their fight or flight. You don't need to avoid conflict; you disarm it instead.
Congratulations, in this process you create incredible value for yourself. Even if you have only just started and haven't even practiced this yet, the seed has been planted. Practice this in any and all environments. Each experience has value to you from the perspective of putting you in the position to be able to learn through observation. Watch how others go into conflict so that you become familiar with how it evolves in yourself.
This is the ultimate in peacemaking. You will eventually learn that there is nothing to avoid or be afraid of. There is great personal power in learning these tools and applying them. It might take you months or years before you really get good at it. How long it takes doesn't matter. You are changing an elemental and deeply recessed part of yourself.
Trust the process of growth and the gifts it will inevitably bring you. Whatever your unique path looks like, understand that it is right for you and perfect for where you are now. It is your learning curve and not anyone else's. Learn to question everything and you will find your own path to peace of mind, free of conflict.
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